Archive for April, 2011

Union Jacks on Regent Street in London

Off course you couldn’t get away from the Royal Wedding today. As a typical Brit I am usually embarrassed at displays of flag waving and patriotism but I found myself wearing my England t-shirt to work in New York and watching the ceremony while eating breakfast.

I can remember Princess Diana’s wedding while I was a teenager and in my full flush of enthusiasm for the monarchy. During my twenties I flirted with republicanism but I have now swung back to thinking it is a good idea to have a symbolic non-political head of state.

It cuts down the ego of the Prime Minister to have an audience with the monarch every week and days like today put British politicians firmly in their place. They can see they are very unlikely to regarded with the same affection and are reminded that the monarchy will be there long after they have left the stage.  Some Americans even feel the same way :

If it’s an affront to democratic sensibilities, it’s also a safeguard for democratic institutions. Better a real king, crowned and powerless, than the many pseudo-kings who have strutted (and still strut) so destructively across the modern stage. (The Dish)

As Walter Bagehot said in 1863:

A royal family sweetens politics by the seasonable addition of nice and pretty events. It introduces irrelevant facts into the business of government, but they are facts which speak to men’s bosoms and employ their thoughts. (The Spectator)

The day was also important for other reasons:

– it was the twentieth anniversary of the cyclone in Bangladesh which left 140,000 dead and 10 million homeless. This month’s National Geographic has a piece on the lessons the country took from that disaster and  how it can teach others to  cope with rising seas levels;

– President Obama visited Tuscaloosa, one of the tornado-ravaged cities in Alabama;

– the President also met eight surviving members of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. Dr Martin Luther King went to Memphis to support the almost entirely African-American workforce as they campaigned for better working conditions and on April 3 delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the day before his too-early death.

And his speech is still amazingly apt today:

Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

Have a good weekend.

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The latest issue of National Geographic has a stunning photo gallery of superclimbers at Yosemite.

There is also an article to go with them (the bold highlights are mine):

On a bright Saturday morning in September a young man is clinging to the face of Half Dome, a sheer 2,130-foot wall of granite in the heart of Yosemite Valley. He’s alone, so high off the ground that perhaps only the eagles take notice. Hanging on by his fingertips to an edge of rock as thin as a dime, shoes smeared on mere ripples in the rock, Eminem blasting on his iPod, Alex Honnold is attempting something no one has ever tried before: to climb the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome without a rope. He’s less than a hundred feet from the summit when something potentially disastrous occurs—he loses the smallest measure of confidence.

For two hours and 45 minutes Honnold has been in the zone, flawlessly performing hundreds of precise athletic moves one after another, and not once has he hesitated. In the sport of free soloing, which means climbing with only a powdery chalk bag and rock shoes—no rope, no gear, nothing to keep you stuck to the stone but your own belief and ability—doubt is dangerous. If Honnold’s fingertips can’t hold, or if he merely believes his fingertips can’t hold, he will fall to his death. Now, the spell suddenly broken by mental fatigue and the glass-slick slab in front of him, he’s paralyzed.

Read more at National Geographic

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My favourite piece this week was by Salman Rushdie who used his great skills as a writer  to eloquently comment on the arrest of  Chinese artist Ai Weiwei:

“The lives of artists are more fragile than their creations. The poet Ovid was exiled by Augustus to a little hell-hole on the Black Sea called Tomis, but his poetry has outlasted the Roman Empire. Osip Mandelstam died in a Stalinist work camp, but his poetry has outlived the Soviet Union. Federico García Lorca was killed by the thugs of Spain’s Generalissimo Francisco Franco, but his poetry has survived that tyrannical regime.

We can perhaps bet on art to win over tyrants. It is the world’s artists, particularly those courageous enough to stand up against authoritarianism, for whom we need to be concerned, and for whose safety we must fight” (New York Times)

– although I will have to reconcile myself to the sad,beautiful fact that I’ll never get to read everything I want (NPR) ;

yesterday was Judgement Day as prophesied in the Terminator series when the machines would rise up and bring about the end of human society as we know it (BBC)

– Europeans are happier when they have a day off while Americans would rather be working those extra hours, according to a new study (3quarksdaily)

– maybe Americans should listen to Umair Haque:

if it’s the city at the other end of the economic world we wish to reach — the shining city on a hill we once called prosperity, a conception of richness that, resonantly American, was never merely about hands grabbing at wealth, but about imagining, building, and creating lives that were authentically richer — then we might just have to get serious not merely about what it is we don’t do, but what we will do differently tomorrow than we have done for the last several decades (Harvard Business Review)

– and also to Brad Feld, a venture capitalist who gave some pertinent  advice to a group of MBA students:

Don’t worry about money right now. You can always get a job that pays you plenty of money. Don’t worry about your resume. Don’t worry about “am I positioning myself the right way for something five years from now.” I know way too many 45 year olds who have plenty of money, have done all the right career things, yet are unhappy with where they are in life, where they live, and what they do. Don’t be that guy or gal (FeldThoughts)

Despite living in the US for five years, I am very jealous of my London colleagues who get both Easter Monday and the day of the royal wedding off, so my European roots are still showing.

Happy Easter.

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Last August NPR’s Radiolab had a program on words and commissioned a magical video from Everynone which managed to capture their power, despite not using many.

The same team has reassembled to create an equally wonderful video on symmetry (via Brain Pickings) :

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Foreign Policy had a heartbreaking photo essay last month on the Arab uprisings called Children of the Revolution.

Some of the facts from the piece :

In Yemen UNICEF counts at least 19 children who have been killed by both snipers and explosions since early February — an estimated 20% of the total casualties;

In Libya  Save the Children estimates that one million children are in serious danger as government forces battle rebels.

The article came to mind when reading my latest book club choice – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

The novel is set in the country of Panem, from the Roman model of Panem et Circenses where in return for bellies full of bread and entertainment provided by gladiators in the arena, citizens were willing to give up political responsibilities and power.

Panem is made up of 12 districts ruled by a distant Capitol and has risen from the ashes of a place once known as America. The heroine, Katniss Everdeen, lives in the Seam, the coal mining area of District 12, in the place once known as Appalachia where “looking old is something of an achievement since so many people die early” and a “plump person is envied because they aren’t scraping by like the majority.”

The novel immediately lays out its themes by beginning on reaping day when the names of each child in the district aged between 12 and 18 are put into a pool. Each year a boy and girl from each district are pulled out at random to take part in the Hunger Games. The 24 children, known as tributes, fight to the death in a televised tournament with the winner receiving a life of ease and extra food for their families and their district.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the exploration of what this violence means for their society and if

something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.

Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games to replace her younger sister, Prim, and immediately becomes an unwitting symbol of resistance:

Instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.

Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ fellow tribute from District 12, wants to show the Capitol that he is more than just a toy in their games :

I don’t want to them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not

and Katniss finally comes to understand what he means.

Another interesting aspect of the book is how Katniss moves from being an unwitting symbol to an active player who movingly decides to do something during the Games to show the Capitol

that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own

However, just like in the real world, the issues are not presented purely in black and white, which has to be applauded in a book aimed at young adults. In Catching Fire, the second book of the trilogy, President Snow warns Katniss:

You have provided a spark that left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem.

This spark provokes uprisings and acts of resistance in other districts and Katniss worries she is hurting the people she loves. However she realises they have already been hurt:

because what has been done to them is so wrong, so beyond justification, so evil that there is no choice

In the final book, Katniss becomes Mockingjay, the bird that has survived despite the Capitol’s plans.

Her fellow rebels idealistically aim to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect representatives in a centralised government. But these ideals soon give way to reality of waging war, despite protests from Katniss:

But that kind of thinking – you could turn it into an argument for killing anyone at any time. You could justify sending kids into the Hunger Games to prevent the districts from getting out of line.

Katniss tragically learns that no-one benefits from a world in which these things are allowed to happen. We can only hope that lesson is understood in the real world for the real children of the revolution.

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The BBC has some fabulous photos of the first major UK exhibition by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa :

BBC News – In pictures: Jaume Plensa at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

They reminded me of a trip to Chicago and his wonderful installation in the city  – Crown Fountain :

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There were two important anniversaries on April 12:

– the first shots were fired in the US Civil War 150 years ago on April 12 1861.

Robert Sutton, chief historian of the National Park Service, said:

“Today we commemorate the beginning of the Civil War, but we also celebrate the fact that, with the end of the war and with the 13th amendment to the Constitution, more people were freed from enslavement at one time than at any time in world history.” (Reuters – the 13th amendment abolished slavery)

– Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, just 27, became the first human to journey into outer space 50 years ago on April 12 1961.

Brewster Shaw, a former NASA astronaut, writes in The Atlantic :

Until we first orbited the Earth fifty years ago, our only view of the surface was the view from an airplane window. The first flights of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard expanded our vision — we saw the curvature of the planet, as well as the lack of man-made boundaries.

This reminded me of the West Wing episode when Sam explains why we need to keep exploring:

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